Christina McDowell was about to leave DC when she decided to write what may be the most delightful Washington novel in recent memory.
“I was in town for the Women’s March, and on the plane back to Los Angeles, I got an email from my editor, who said, ‘What’s going on with the cave dwellers, ”McDowell says, using a term that refers to residents of the nation’s capital, the kind of people who stay in power no matter who lives in the White House. “I asked her if anyone had ever written a book about the sons and daughters of the most powerful people here in this epicenter of institutional power, and she said, ‘You know, I think you’re on to something. . ‘
And she was. McDowell’s novel Cave dwellers, now, is a gripping, deeply-observed story that reveals the inner workings of one of America’s most secretive tribes. Offering a glimpse into a world of money, power, and tradition that for years had a disproportionate impact on the functioning of the country, the novel uses a scalpel where others could deploy a hatchet.
Cave dwellers follows a multigenerational group of Washingtonians navigating the complicated waters of social and political survival in the wake of the gruesome murder of a local family inside their mansion, but it’s more than a thriller. Instead, it tackles ideas about family, friendship, belonging, and the fickle nature of influence – all of this plays out, of course, at tense meals at stuffy country clubs, at parties. animated by drugs in the mansion of the Russian Ambassador and along the well-kept avenues. of Georgetown.
Cave dwellers would be a page turner no matter when it was released, but in today’s climate – with Washington more closely watched than ever, the prestige of elected officials evolving, and even local grande dame Sally Quinn declaring the city’s social scene more or less extinct – it practically qualifies as required reading. It owes as much to McDowell’s sharp and insightful work as it does to his own status as a person who has been on both sides of the doors to Washington’s most important halls.
McDowell was born in Georgetown and later lived in the affluent suburb of McLean, Virginia. She had the kind of charmed childhood that the Washington post once described as “spent over a vast Georgian estate on the corner of Hickory Hill of the Kennedys, and summers in the house of Nantucket, Mass.”
She grew up around what she calls “the silent power,” explaining, “a childhood friend of my father’s grandfather worked on the atomic bomb, and that sort of thing that’s very specific to Washington. ” But it wasn’t entirely a fairy tale. McDowell’s dad, as she wrote in her 2015 memoir Perfect after, ended up in prison after being charged with stock market fraud; the real life The wolf of Wall Street Jordan Belfort testified against him. After that, her family – who no longer live the high life – moved to Los Angeles where she took acting jobs and made a stint on reality TV.
“It’s so rare to read stories of people who had it all and then lost it,” says Alison Callahan, editor-in-chief of McDowell. “Christina was able to seize the opportunity in such an extraordinary way. I publish 98% fiction, but when I got her memoir I found her so interesting – she put together a writer’s life. Everything exploded in her face, but she handled it with so much dignity and grace, and she still winks in her eyes. But an elephant never forgets, and that’s why she’s the perfect person to do it. She doesn’t get there with an important agenda or with a knife in her hand, she approaches it with serenity and tells it like it is.
Still, for McDowell, making a comeback hasn’t always been easy. “I came [back to Washington] like some sort of insider turned stranger, given my personal history, ”McDowell says. “My parents endured – or maybe didn’t – a scandal here; my father was charged with fraud, he went to jail, so I was away for a very long time.
When he returned to town, McDowell began his research. Inspired by kebabs, Tom Wolfe donated a percent of Manhattan in Bonfire of vanities, she showed up to galas and the Chevy Chase Country Club, and eventually a friend of a friend brought her to the Alibi Club, one of Old Washington’s most exclusive venues. The club appears in one of the delightful chapters of the novel, which explains to strangers the secret codes of some of DC’s powerhouses. “Because this club is so exclusive and secret,” she says, “it took me two years to find a source.”
She also began to view the world of cave dwellers not as she remembered it from childhood, but rather how she saw it as an adult in its complicated and contemporary terms. “The cave dwellers who have resided in Washington generation after generation are really losing their grip, their existence seems very archaic to me,” she says now. “They belong to things like the Daughters of the American Revolution, where the women still wear white gloves, and they retreat to their country homes in Middleburg where there is fox hunting. I like to say it’s sort of the Game of thrones for housewives in Washington. “
Paul Hammond, a Washington native and friend of McDowell’s, believes she hit the nail straight on her head. “I was born in Washington, DC and raised in Georgetown, and when I was growing up it was different in a way,” he says. “It was a sleepier town, and every part of Georgetown was different; we wary of people on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue because we were on the west side. We know a lot of cave dwellers, and Christina understood this world well.
Not that McDowell wrote the book to put the remaining cave dwellers at ease. “I didn’t become a writer to put people at ease,” she says. “I became a writer because I always felt that there was in me a certain rebellion against the rigidity of the Washington tradition and, in this insular world of the natives, a resistance to change. I think we are now ready for this change. ”
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